The Copyright Infrastructure

by Rev Tony Ponticello

This article first appeared in Miracles Monthly,
(Vol.17,No.11/Jan.'04) published by Community
Miracles Center, San Francisco, CA. Copyright:
Rev. Tony Ponticello, San Francisco, CA 2004.
Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Beneath the streets of the city, underneath the asphalt and concrete, lie the pipes which carry the water, the copper cables which conduct the electricity and the tubes which flush away our sewage. No one pays much attention to these conduits (unless you work for the Department of Public Works) but everyone counts on their flawless functioning. We call this web of pipes and conduits the infrastructure and city governments know how important it is to keep it all running efficiently.

Beneath our study of A Course In Miracles® we also have a web of conduits. This infrastructure is a series of interlocking legal licenses and agreements which keep books being printed so that we can read our ACIM® lesson in the morning and go to study groups in the evening. These legal licenses and rights help us to find Course teachers and classes. They help us to locate publications (like this issue of Miracles) and they, hopefully, insure that when we want to buy an ACIM book for our friends we will be able to find one. This infrastructure consists of copyrights, service marks, publishing and distribution rights and teacher's ability to communicate to the public that an ACIM class is happening.

ACIM students are fond of saying that the copyright of A Course in Miracles doesn't effect them and they don't need to know what's happening. However, just like our water, electricity and sewage lines, if these conduits stop working everyone will care and quite quickly. When an earthquake knocks out your water and power you suddenly get very concerned about your city's infrastructure. When legal and business issues make it impossible to print ACIM related books and materials, to publish ACIM web sites and to advertise Course workshops and classes, miracles students everywhere get very concerned about copyrights and service marks.

For many years, our ACIM infrastructure functioned normally and no one paid much a ttention to it—just like our public utilities. However, in 1992, things began to change. Ironically, it was the increasing popularity and marketability of the Course itself which prompted the change. Marianne Williamson wrote a huge, international best-seller about the Course, A Return To Love, in spring of 1992. Suddenly huge sums of money (millions) were involved. ACIM organizations were springing up everywhere and while most played ball with the Foundation For Inner Peace (FIP), the copyright holder, some were more renegade in their approach. To them, how could the work of a divine being, Jesus, be copyrighted? Who could own it? It's natural that people think this way because we have a long tradition of relating to spiritual text (Bible, Koran, Bagavad Gita, Tao Te Ching) as free words of enlightenment in the public domain. No one has to be consulted if you want to quote the Bible. Many were relating to the Course as their "Bible" so it seemed unnatural to have to ask anyone's permission to quote from it in print.

Over the next few years the infrastructure of ACIM got tremendously complex and convoluted. In 1996, Penguin Books was granted use of the copyright so they could publish ACIM. FIP in 1999 transferred absolute ownership of the Course copyright to the Foundation For ACIM (FACIM®) which seemed like a conflict of interests to many because they shared a board member. Possible, the strangest complication of all, the words "A Course In Miracles" themselves and the acronym ACIM were turned into registered service marks in 1993. Now one could not prominently display these words / letters in print, or on web pages, without getting permission from the owners, a permission which was virtually impossible to obtain.

FIP, FACIM and later Penguin vigorously enforced the copyright and service marks. Organizations received anonymous, threatening letters and emails from nameless "correspondents" telling them that law suits would follow if they didn't change what they were doing. Lawyers wrote "cease and desist" letters to many individuals and ACIM organization. Some were sued. Compuserve was forced to close a popular ACIM discussion group because of service mark violations in 1994. My own organization, Community Miracles Center, received a disturbing letter from FACIM in 1999 stating numerous "violations." No person signed the letter. Also in 1999, Robert Perry and his organization, The Circle of Atonement, received threatening cease and desist letters and were told to destroy all their books and publications which were in violation of copyright and service marks laws. In Wisconsin, The First Christian Church of Full Endeavor was legally sued in 1996. In 1999, Robert Perry was denied the right to publish a comprehensive introduction to the Course which he had written with no explanation of why and without any discussion of possible recourse. The Course infrastructure had broken down. The free access of information, books, web pages wasn't flowing. Many Course students suddenly began to notice.

The Circle of Atonement mediated a provisional agreement with FACIM / FIP in 2000 which allowed them to continue to function although a final agreement was never reached. Their publication activities were restricted although not stopped altogether. Endeavor Academy took a more aggressive approach. They decided to go after the legality of the copyright itself. The Course should never have been copyrighted in the first place. The Southern District Court of New York presided by the Honorable Judge Sweet, has been working this case for seven long years.

Most of the clauses that Endeavor was claiming to invalidate the copyright were thrown out of court. They would have liked to try the case on the basis of the uncopyrightability of writings of divine authorship, but this was denied. However, one clause remained. For years Judy Skutch-Whitson had told the story of the early days of the Course and how many copies were distributed in xerox form before it was ever published formally. Even before that, friends and associates of Helen Schucman and Bill Thetford received copies. Endeavor claimed that so much early distribution without restriction happened prior to copyright that the Course was already in the public domain before the first copyright was applied for in 1975.

Finally, after what seemed like endless delays and legal maneuvering, the case went to trial in May 2003. Many thought that the larger, more financially solvent organizations FACIM and FIP were merely trying to financially bankrupt Endeavor and simply win the lawsuit by default. Even more bizarre, during the trial, Judy Skutch-Whitson shockingly changed her well known story about xeroxed copies being distributed. According to Skutch-Whitson now, this distribution never happened! "I was telling stories … embellished, exaggerated … one could say tremendous hyperboles … I do that. That's the way I am." When audio tapes were entered into evidence where her own voice from years ago told of the alleged distribution she firmly denied that she was telling the truth back then. The Miracles community was left with the question, "How can we know she is telling the truth now?" This was an obvious point made successfully by Endeavor's lawyer and it must have registered with the Judge Sweet as well.

On October 24, 2003, Judge Sweet issued his ruling, the copyright of ACIM was invalid by virtue of prior distribution to a group of friends and congenial strangers who did not qualify as the limited distribution group which FIP and FACIM was trying to prove. Not only did the judge decide that the copyright was invalid, but FIP / FACIM must pay Endeavor for the seven years of legal fees. An "Order of Judgment" was entered by Judge Sweet on December 2nd. FIP and FACIM have 30 days to appeal. (See footnote.)

Will they appeal? It's anyone's guess. What grounds could they appeal on? If no appeal, there could be no copyright on ACIM as soon as January 2, 2004. (See footnote.) If appealed, the case could drag on for many more months, even years. The decision from Judge Sweet in October is only about the copyright. The service mark issue was separated out years ago to be decided after the copyright issue was settled. The granting of the service mark was unusual because book titles are rarely "trademarked" and it was only because of the copyright that the "trademark / service mark" was possible. If and when the copyright is finally, legally invalid, the feeling is that the service mark would go down easily.

In the mean time the conduits beneath the Course community are still clogged. Authors are only permitted to quote from the Course in limited, small quantities. However, FACIM quotes copiously from ACIM in it's publications granting them the apparent perception of the ultimate Course authority. Yet, just the reading of the Judge's decision and the incredulity of Judy Skutch-Whitson's about face testimony have sent the Course's own Department of Public Works down into the bowels on the Course infrastructure. Authors are already thinking about the joys of being able to publish without having to ask anybody's permission. Teachers are fantasizing about communicating on web sites that they are teaching ACIM classes without worrying that their internet service providers will receive threatening letters from lawyers.

What about the purity of the material? Who will insure it? Yet, does the Course actually need defense? How could we have been mislead all these years by the copyright holders themselves? Why did they do this and can we believe them now? These are the profound questions that will fix our infrastructure and get our utilities running free, fresh and abundant again.

[Footnote: The Order of Judgement originally entered on December 2, 2003 has been delayed/rescinded to now allow both parties to submit briefs on the topic of legal fees and their reimbursements. The briefs have been submitted and a meeting before the court has been scheduled. After that meeting, a new Order of Judgement will be entered and FIP / FACIM will then have 30 days to appeal.]

©2004, Rev. Tony Ponticello, San Francisco, CA

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